By Qin Sun Stubis
More than 25 years ago, during her trip to visit Shanghai, the daughter of an American frontier writer made a promise to a young, literature-craving Chinese tour guide, saying that she’d mail a precious copy of her mother’s work from her private library once she returned home.
The visitor was Mary Aldrich. And, that young guide was me. Mary kept her promise. But I only got a glimpse of the title, A Lantern in Her Hand, before the book was taken away by the government tour agency where I worked. How I wished then that I could suck the content out of that book and take it home with me as I stared hungrily at the aged grey-blue hardcover and bid it goodbye.
Much has happened since then, and the book was buried under the dust of my memory until a few weeks ago. My husband and I went out to explore a local library in our new neighborhood outside Washington D.C. As I looked through the young adult section in search of a book for my daughter, A Lantern in Her Hand appeared, almost magically, in front of me.
I couldn’t stop blinking my eyes as I thought about that ill-fated grayish blue book I never got to read. Could it be the same one? I took a closer look at the author’s name: Bess Streeter Aldrich. Indeed, it was Mary’s mother!
I couldn’t believe that this book had come back to me after so many years! I scooped it up and took it home like a long-lost friend. And, then I devoured it with all my passion. When I finished it, I could not but wonder if a good book, indeed, has a soul, for I felt I had always known this book and its dear stories about a heroine named Abbie Deal. She reminds me of myself, though we couldn’t have been further apart. Bess Streeter Aldrich completed her life journey in Lincoln, Nebraska six years before I was born in Shanghai, China. Yet, she brought to life a character, Abbie Deal, whose dreams and pioneer life in the American Wild West resonated with mine in a shantytown in Shanghai, China.
The Mackenzie part of her family line once owned pearls, castles, and land just as my grandparents, once enjoyed servants, gold watches and radio stands with ivory knobs. Abbie lived in a sod house built by her husband as I dwelled under the tin roof of a wooden hut, contrived by my father. She dreamed of singing and painting lessons as I longed for western literature. In the end, we both fulfilled a lot: Abbie’s children became successful lawyers, doctors, singers, and school teachers, while I write my stories in a white colonial, surrounded by my loving husband, an executive at the American Humane Association; my son, a freshman at MIT; and my daughter, a graceful ballerina.
For Abbie and me, life is not a dream but a fulfillment of those dreams, all because we had a lantern in our hands, a lantern of love, hope and perseverance. I want to toast you, Mary Aldrich, wherever you are, for bringing me A Lantern in Her Hand! And, I hope that the “lantern,” once held by many early pioneers like Abbie, will brighten the path of many Americans today as they struggle through the rough trenches of this economic recession.
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